Springwatch's Chris Packham wants a 'new healthier normal' for us and for the planet

With a unique season upon us, Springwatch offers up some real comfort viewing as it returns with more inspiring stories from the natural world. Its presenters speak to Gemma Dunn.

Chris Packham, one of the team who front Springwatch. Picture: PA Photo/BBC

Springwatch is back – but not as we know it.

Following a spring like no other, the annual series – a BBC Two staple since 2005 – will return with a special three-week run of live programmes which aim to keep viewers connected to the natural world at a time of heightened uncertainty.

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Celebrating both the wildlife and the science stories that showcase the diversity of UK habitats and species, the re-imagined format will include a number of prerecorded wildlife films, captured just prior to the Government restrictions on movement, as well as more recent content shot in accordance with the official guidance on self-distancing.

Springwatch presenters Chris Packham, Gillian Burke and Iolo Williams.. Pictures: PA Photo/BBC

The presenters, no longer able to gather in a hub due to the coronavirus crisis, will stay on home-turf and broadcast live from their local areas, across the country.

That’s Chris Packham live from his New Forest patch, Gillian Burke live from a Cornish base, and Iolo Williams, from his home in mid-Wales.

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“Many people are in more contact with wildlife and nature than ever before, so it’s really important that Springwatch does go out,” reasons Williams, 57.

“Obviously, we can’t have [the usual] 120 people all coming together in one place, so it’s going to be different,” realises the Welsh nature observer. “But [as well as the footage] filmed before this happened, people have also been filming in their own back gardens or in their own local park…

“We’re conscious that people want to know, ‘What are these bees that I’m seeing?’ ‘What are these yellow flowers on my lawn?’ People have that hunger for knowledge of local wildlife, so there will be a lot more of that this year.”

“It’s interesting because it feels like we’re all quite confined in terms of the reach, and what we’re able to do. But we’re actually really well networked; we’re able to cover almost the whole length and breadth of the country,” muses Burke, 44.

“As Iolo said, we can’t operate the way we used to with a big crew and in a way I’m going to miss that, but having said that, we’re all people who love having that time outdoors where there’s a bit more peace.

“For a lot of people this whole experience has been difficult, but at the same time it’s reworking how you do things and realising some things actually work well as they are,” follows the Kenyan-born biologist and filmmaker. “So even with restrictions, it is going to feel rich covering this unique spring.”

“There’s some other garden [bits],” Packham, 59, points out. “Brett Westwood, who is a brilliant naturalist, has done something in his garden, so it’s not going to be just big and glamorous – we will concentrate on the smaller bits, perhaps this year more than ever, which will be music to my heart.

“I’m always trying to get them to make films about slugs, flies and all those things we take for granted…” adds the naturalist. “So it will be diverse.”

Another major difference this year is the fact Springwatch veteran Michaela Strachan won’t be joining the team in person due to being locked down in South Africa. She will, however, send a message of support to the viewers and the series will revisit some of her favourite highlights from past years.

“I’ve worked with her for the last 28 years so it’s going to be a real breather for me!” teases Packham, who first encountered his co-presenter when they teamed up for nineties children’s TV hit, The Really Wild Show.

“No, the thing is, my attitude has always been a bit cavalier…” he elaborates. “I’m always five minutes late because I’m lost or I have something more interesting to be thinking about; or I don’t read the script on time or anything.

“Whereas Michaela is consummately professional; always on time, well presented, prepared,” he lists. “It’s not that I use her as a crutch, we just have different approaches and the combination of those, I suppose, is why we’re still working together all these years later, so I’m going to miss that.

“But we’re communicating on WhatsApp all the time. She’s heartbroken not to be playing a role but by the time we get to Autumnwatch, we all hope the restrictions will be such that she can join us.”

In the meantime, this year’s threesome will be joined by special guests, Steve Backshall, Ellie Harrison and Gordon Buchanan.

Similarly operating from their own spots across the country, wildlife presenter Backshall will join from his home patch on the Thames; ecologist Ellie Harrison from her Cotswold base; and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan will cover from Scotland.

In addition, wildlife TV presenter and zoologist Megan McCubbin will join her stepfather Packham, with whom she has been self-isolating in the New Forest, to share her observations on how this spring is developing for our wildlife.

It’s a packed programme. But do the co-presenters think this pandemic will change the nation’s attitude towards nature?

“I think certain things will change,” Williams responds. “But I suspect, I hope I’m wrong, that human nature means a lot of things won’t. But the one really positive thing I hope will come out of this is the fact that people have reconnected or connected for the first time with nature.

“What I really hope is that plants a little seed and they’ll think, ‘Do you know what? We’re going to switch onto Springwatch this year. The kids might learn something there…’ And that seed will grow into an interest, knowledge and respect that will stay there for a lifetime and be passed onto their kids, in turn.”

“It’s about having more voices speaking up for nature,” says Burke. “We know our core audience is on board, but one of the real challenges is how to speak to people who aren’t tuning into our show, to environmentalism. This is a really good opportunity to do that.”

“You’ve got to find some good in the bad, that’s the bottom line,” concludes Packham. "We’ve learned some harsh lessons, so we need to make sure we implement improvements in the future, and the environment has got to be a key part of that.

“People will want to get back to normal. I want to get back to a new normal, a healthier normal for us as a species, and ultimately as a planet,” he finishes. “And that is a real potential, so we’d be foolish not to learn lessons from this.”

Springwatch returns to BBC Two on Tuesday, May 26.

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